Wednesday, 21 March 2018

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: 2 Fuzzy, 2 Furious by Shannon and Dean Hale

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: 2 Fuzzy, 2 Furious by Shannon and Dean Hale is the second Squirrel Girl prose novel, following on from the setting and characters established in the first book, Squirrel Meets World. That said, 2 Fuzzy, 2 Furious stands alone fairy well and does not require having read the earlier book to be enjoyed.

Squirrel Girl is BACK in an all-new adventure and things are about to get . . . hairy. Thanks to Squirrel Girl, Ana Sofia, and the Squirrel Scouts, the crime rate in New Jersey is at an all time low. It makes for safer streets but also bored-er squirrels. That's why it's super exciting when Doreen's school announces a new mall is being built right next to their town. Mmmm . . . Doreen can smell the soft pretzels now. The corporation building mall has also announced that there will be a competition to choose the mall's mascot. Because malls need mascots?Anyway, Doreen's school will be voting for a cat and the neighboring school will be voting for a dog. As the relationship starts to unravel between the two towns, Squirrel Girl and her friends suspect something more sinister is at work. With the help of old friends like Ana Sofia, Tippy Toe, and The Mighty Thor as well as some surprising new ones, Squirrel Girl will squash a villainous plot and save everyone.The unbeatable Squirrel Girl is ready for more nuts AND more butts! Are you?

Much as expected, this book was fun, light-hearted and humorous. It revisits middle school-aged Squirrel Girl/Doreen Green along with her best human and squirrel friends, Anna Sofia and Tippy Toe, respectively. While Doreen and Anna Sofia navigate friendship and middle school, something strange and probably evil is brewing in their town. Will they realise in time to put a stop to it before it gets out of hand? And now many Squirrel Girl commentary foot notes can be squeezed into one book? (94. The answer is 94.)

I enjoyed 2 Fuzzy, 2 Furious a lot, although I think slightly less than I enjoyed the first book in the series. I'm not sure whether that's to do with actual differences in tone/voice etc or just a difference in my mood when each book was read. That said, I did feel there was a difference in Tippy Toe's voice with its idiosyncrasies being toned down a bit in 2 Fuzzy, 2 Furious compared with Squirrel Meets World. I don't think this is a bad thing though, since it's now a bit more accessible.

Overall this book was strong on the power of friendship and being nice to people, with a few amusing attempts at peaceful conflict resolution on Squirrel Girl's part. I would definitely not hesitate to give it to young children (although Australian and other non-US children would probably require an explanation as to what middle school is). I enjoyed it a lot and I will definitely be reading any more Squirrel Girl books the Hales write.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: March 2018, Marvel Press
Series: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl book 2 or 2 so far
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased via iBooks

Monday, 19 March 2018

Falling Free — The Vorkosigan Saga Project

Falling Free is the latest book we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. It’s actually the earliest book to take place chronologically and was published fourth out of all of them. Set about 200 years before the other books in the Vorkosigan universe, Falling Free is about a race of genetically engineered “quaddies” who were designed to function better in freefall than normal humans do.

You can read Katharine’s review of Falling Free here, and Tsana’s review here.

Katharine: Hello everyone! Welcome back, and apologies this discussion is so late. Totally my fault, and totally because I struggled to finish reading this one. I was not a fan.

Tsana: While this is definitely not one of my favourite Bujold books, I didn’t hate Falling Free. There was one aspect I was definitely not a fan of (and that was true the first time I read it as well), but other than that I found it to be an interesting hard science fiction book.

Katharine: We meet Leo Graff, who is being hired on a top-secret project and based out on a self-sufficient space station, to teach welding in space, and how to do it safely. Unfortunately it turns out that his boss is someone he’s run into before, and didn’t exactly give a glowing recommendation for… so even before he begins, he knows he’s up against someone who has a bit of a chip on his shoulder.

Tsana: Well I don’t think the boss knows that Leo hated him, which is why he gets Leo hired… but I’m jumping ahead a little. The interesting thing about this space station is not who’s in charge of it, but the project that is being run out of it. The company that owns the station has genetically engineered a new race of humans that can work and live in microgravity environments much better than normal humans can. Their most visible biological difference? A second set of hands instead of feet.

Katharine: Called quaddies, the oldest are only just at childbearing age, which several of them are now experimenting. Tony and Claire are the first parents, and Tony happens to become quickly Leo’s best student. The quaddies are mostly far too innocent for their own good and are considered property of the company.

Tsana: Yes. And when we say childbearing age, they’re like 15 or 16, not adults. That, and some of the interactions with adults in positions of power over them contributed to a significant squick factor. Is that the main thing you didn’t like about it, Katharine?

Katharine: Can go more into that after we raise the spoiler shield as it’s too hard to discuss without it. But basically… the quaddies exist and Leo is only one of many of their instructors, except we don’t see much of any of the others. We see doctors and the ‘mothers’ who care for the kids, and that’s about it.

Tsana: A lot of the book is a look at what might be thought up as a solution to various problems normal humans face working in space for long periods of time, as well as, er something that I’ve just realised is a major spoiler.

Spoiler shields up!

Saturday, 17 March 2018

#ReadShortStories (51 to 55)

Another mixed bag of stories. I am not keeping up with Uncanny, despite my subscription: I read one more story in the Jan/Feb issue and, meanwhile, the March/April issue arrived. Whoops. But hey, better than nothing and I think I'm a reasonable way through the fiction. The other stories were a bit random and older. I realised that sorting my Pocket queue by oldest at the top was going to make getting through the stories I've had on there the longest easier. We'll see how that goes.

The two best stories in this batch were easily "Lines of Growth, Lines of Passage" by Marissa Lingen and "Fiber" by Seanan McGuire (which I just really want to spell correctly — ugh, US English, why?). Both were funny, in different ways, and thoughtful too.

The Egg by SB Divya — Sad flash about uterine replicator-type technology as a solution to infertility. Source:

Lines of Growth, Lines of Passage by Marissa Lingen — A delightful story about a sorceress who was betrayed and who went on to solve a somewhat military problem with communication rather than force. I quite liked it. Source:

Fiber by Seanan McGuire — A really fun and entertaining story about cheerleaders with supernatural inclinations, yoghurt and other monsters. A very enjoyable read. Source:

Ten Days’ Grace by Foz Meadows — A story set in a dictatorially Christian future, about a woman who was forced to marry a stranger to be allowed to keep her daughter. Not a bad read. Source:

Let There Be Light by Chen Quifan  — A series of glimpses at a high tech future world where, despite convenient technology, people aren’t magically happy. Some interesting ideas, but light on plot. Source:

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Before I Let Go by Marieke Nijkamp

Before I Let Go by Marieke Nijkamp is a non-genre YA book about a girl dealing with her best friend's death. I picked it up after hearing good things about it and thanks to having enjoyed the author's first, unrelated, book, This Is Where It Ends.

Best friends Corey and Kyra were inseparable in their snow-covered town of Lost Creek, Alaska. When Corey moves away, she makes Kyra promise to stay strong during the long, dark winter, and wait for her return.

Just days before Corey is to return home to visit, Kyra dies. Corey is devastated―and confused. The entire Lost community speaks in hushed tones about the town's lost daughter, saying her death was meant to be. And they push Corey away like she's a stranger.

Corey knows something is wrong. With every hour, her suspicion grows. Lost is keeping secrets―chilling secrets. But piecing together the truth about what happened to her best friend may prove as difficult as lighting the sky in an Alaskan winter...

This is a story about Corey dealing with her grief in the immediate aftermath of her best friend's death. Having moved away and gone to boarding school seven months earlier, this is her first trip back to the small town she still thinks of as "home". She wants to understand why Kyra killed herself, especially so close to Corey's originally planned trip back. When Corey arrives in Lost, the town is acting a bit strangely towards her and the more she learns the less happy she is with the answers she finds.

I don't want to spoil anything, but I think I saw this marketed as a thriller — and This Is Where It Ends certainly was one — but it isn't. I mean, there are weird and creepy aspects and there's a little bit of action, but I would class it as straight contemporary fiction more than anything else. I enjoyed it despite my usual preference for speculative fiction. It dealt pretty well with Kyra being bipolar, although the story was told from Corey's point of view and involved her and others coming to terms with (or not) Kyra's diagnosis. There were also queer characters and Corey herself is asexual, which is unusual and nice to see in a YA book.

The other big character in this book was the setting. This is a story that would not have worked — that could not have been told the same way — if it had not been set in a very small town. The inhospitable arctic setting of the town, which the in habitants have made their own, also contributed a lot to the overall vibe of the book. In fact, I actually really liked what the author did with a few scenes: writing them out as stage directions and dialogue to shift the impact and play with the reader's (and Corey's) perception of reality. It was an interesting device I haven't seen before. I thought it was strange at first, but it grew on me and made sense overall.

Before I Let Go isn't a happy novel, but it also wasn't as depressing as I expected it to be (but your perceptions may vary). It's main focus is on a particular set of ableist reactions to mental illness and it explores these well. It's a story of friendship and grief and a very isolated town. If that sounds like your kind of thing, or if you enjoy contemporary YA generally, then I highly recommend this book. I read it very quickly and will certainly be keeping an eye out for the author's future books.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: January 2018, Sourcebooks Fire
Series: No
Format read: Hardcover *gasp*
Source: Purchased from Dymocks

Friday, 9 March 2018

Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold

Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold occupies a somewhat confusing place in the Vorkosigan universe chronology. It was the fourth book published — which is interesting to consider in itself — but is a prequel set about 200 years before the other books in the series. Aside from anything else, that means it stands entirely on its own with no character connections to any other books in the series. It does, however, lay some background for a race of genetically engineered people that appear in a couple of other books.

Leo Graf was an effective engineer...Safety Regs weren't just the rule book he swore by; he'd helped write them. All that changed on his assignment to the Cay Habitat. Leo was profoundly uneasy with the corporate exploitation of his bright new students—till that exploitation turned to something much worse. He hadn't anticipated a situation where the right thing to do was neither safe, nor in the rules...

This story follows an engineer who has been sent to a space station to teach a bunch of genetically engineered humans how to weld safely. Through his point of view we encounter the quaddies, who have two extra arms instead of legs for better manoeuvrability in free fall. We also see how the quaddies are questionably owned by the corporation that created them and the extent to which they have been psychologically conditioned to keep working for the corporation. Also, how ripe for exploitation they are as a group. We also see some of this exploitation from the point of view of one of the quaddies, Silver, although she doesn't entirely realise she's being exploited.

This was an odd re-read because the first time I read this book, at roughly the same place in terms of which books I read before and after (thanks to the Baen omnibuses), I had no idea what to expect. The second time, I knew what to expect, remembered not disliking the book but was still disappointed that Miles and/or Cordelia weren't in it. Also, the aspect of the book I remembered disliking was, of course, still there, for all that I came at it from a slightly different perspective. I also noticed that pretty much all the bits I didn't really like were very carefully written and challenged within the narrative itself.

Falling Free is one of the most hard science fictional books in the Vorkosigan Saga. There's a bit of hand-wavey science, but for the most part those bits of science aren't the focus of the story. The story very much deals with the scenario of convenient genetic engineering and the possible consequences of obsolesce thereafter.

This is a good book to read as a standalone if you're not sure whether Bujold's writing is for you. Since it stands alone there's not obligation to keep reading the other books, but they remain an easy possibility for readers who enjoyed this book. And although the iconic character of Miles doesn't appear in this book, the story is still feels like a part of the same universe. It's not my favourite Vorkosigan universe book, but it's not a terrible place to start (for all that I've only ever read it in the middle of the series) and it's a darned good read either way.

4 / 5 stars

A bunch of alternative covers, because it's my blog and I can do what I want (and they don't suck as much as usual):

First published: 1987 serialised in Analog and as a fully collected novel by Baen in 1988
Series: Vorkosigan saga, fourth book written, first chronologically speaking
Format read: ePub as part of the Miles, Mutants and Microbes omnibus
Source: Purchased from Baen several years go

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Runtime by SB Divya

Runtime by SB Divya is a science fiction novella and the author's debut book. I bought it from a while ago but hadn't gotten around to reading it until now. What triggered my picking it up was reading an excellent short story by Divya, "Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse", which made me want to read more of her work. I am not actually sure whether that story and Runtime are set in the same future, since they're set in different parts of the US, but they could be.

The Minerva Sierra Challenge is a grueling spectacle, the cyborg's Tour de France. Rich thrill-seekers with corporate sponsorships, extensive support teams, and top-of-the-line exoskeletal and internal augmentations pit themselves against the elements in a day-long race across the Sierra Nevada.

Marmeg Guinto doesn’t have funding, and she doesn’t have support. She cobbled her gear together from parts she found in rich people’s garbage and spent the money her mother wanted her to use for nursing school to enter the race. But the Minerva Challenge is the only chance she has at a better life for herself and her younger brothers, and she’s ready to risk it all.

This was an interesting read, a bit different to what I usually end up reading with the racing element. Marmeg comes from the lower echelons of society which means she has no rights to anything except US citizenship and voting. Other aspects of civilised society, such as healthcare and education, have to be earned, either by being born well-off or by working very hard to make enough money to buy these things. Marmeg's plan is to win a race, or at least place in the top five, and use the prize money to get herself an education and help her brothers. The race is over several miles of difficult terrain and to be competitive one has to augment their bodies. The rich racers can buy fancy augments, but Marmeg scrounged hers from bins and wrote custom software, which is her specialty.

There was a lot of front-loaded world building in this novella. It was interesting social world building for the near future US society, but was a little tricky to keep track of since I was quite tired when I started reading. As I got further in the novella, however, I got used to the new terminology and didn't feel like I had to be really paying super close attention to follow the story. Anyway, I don't think that's really a flaw of the novella so much as unfortunate timing on my part.

I enjoyed this novella, but I didn't love it as much as I loved "Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse", which unfortunately raised my expectations quite high and was a sort of similar kind of story (with a dystopian society). So while Runtime wasn't disappointing at all, it wasn't quite a five-star read either. I still highly recommend it to all fans of near-future SF, especially stories exploring the tribulations of the most disadvantaged people in society. I will definitely be keeping an eye out for other work by Divya.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2016,
Series: No?
Format read: ePub
Source: purchased from iBooks store

Monday, 5 March 2018

#ReadShortStories (46 to 50)

Three stories from the same issue of Uncanny, this batch. After realising how many short stories I was enjoying from Uncanny, I thought I should support them and subscribe. (It's also possible to support them on Patreon, but a yearly ePub subscription isn't very expensive, so I went with that.) They have rather more stories per issue than I realised, so I'm not even halfway through issue 20 (Jan/Feb 2018) yet. Expect more in the near future.

My favourite story from this batch was hands down "Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse" by SB Divya and, in fact, prompted me to finally pick up her novella, Runtime. Keep an eye out for my review of that in a couple of days. Also, if you happen to know whether "Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse" and Runtime are set in the same future, please let me know! I'm not sure whether they are, but I feel like they definitely could be.

Praying to the God of Small Chances by L Chan — A flash piece about wanting a miracle cure for the protagonist’s father’s cancer and an encounter with a god of small chances. The idea was interesting, but there just wasn’t much to the story, even considering that it’s flash. Source:

She Still Loves the Dragon by Elizabeth Bear — A lovely story about a knight errant who set out to meet a dragon and do the one thing she had not done: stand naked in front of the dragon she loved. Written with strong references to songs and ballads, including the ballad this story would become. It was a very nice story but I didn’t love it as much as I felt like I should have (whatever that means). Source:

Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse by SB Divya — This story was right along the lines of what we were after for Defying Doomsday: it featured a protagonist with disabilities and an apocalypse. Also queer relationships. The apocalypse itself was a bit unexpected — I didn’t realise at first that it was set in the (former) US — and centred around what seemed to be a fracturing of the country into police states and safe states. The setting was very extreme (violent and oppressive) and affecting, which contributed to making this an excellent story. Source:

The Hydraulic Emperor by Arkady Martine — An interesting story about aliens, desire, obsession and sacrifice. I found it an interesting read that got into various characters’ psychology, not just the narrator’s. Source:

Four-Point Affective Calibration by Bogi Takács — A flash story about calibrating a psychology (?) experiment and what different emotions mean to the narrator. Also what aliens mean to the narrator. Source:

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Waking in Winter by Deborah Biancotti

Waking in Winter by Deborah Biancotti is a science fiction horror novella, which I would not have guessed from the cover. I actually procrastinated on reading this novella for quite a while because the cover gave me the impression of a very different type of book. I have previously read the short story collection Bad Power by the same author, which is quite different to Waking in Winter (and about superheroes).

On a far, frozen desert world, Muir the pilot discovers an ancient artefact in the ice. She sees a mermaid at first, but later comes to wonder if it is Ningyo, a fish god from her homeland in Japan. A god that brings misfortune and storm. A god that—by all means possible—should be returned to the sea. The rest of Base Station Un see something else. Bayoumi the lab rat sees Sekhmet the lioness goddess, daughter of the sun god. Partholon the creep finds in its shape a ‘good, old-fashioned cruxifix’. But all of them want to possess it. All of them want it for themselves.

The setting of this novella is an icy alien planet currently being explored and studied by scientists. The main character, Muir, is a pilot for an expedition in which there isn’t a good relationship between the science and support staff. One day, out flying a bit off her mandated survey route, Muir sees a giant mermaid buried under the ice. When one of her colleagues comes to check it out, he instead sees a giant lotus flour. Where Muir saw a missing hand, he saw a missing petal. What is the object beneath the ice? Why is part of it missing? Aliens? The story of the novella answers some of these questions while others remain ambiguous. As well as the story of the investigations of the artefact, we also get some background on Muir and the other characters, including why they’re on this alien planet in the first place.

The horror elements in this novella are fairly mild; it's creepy rather than gory. It's definitely more science fiction and a bit weird. Also, while the basic premise — humans studying a weird alien artefact — has been done before, it's the specific characters that Biancotti brings to Waking in Winter which really make it. I quite enjoyed reading this novella, especially since it was much more my kind of thing than the cover suggested it would be.

This is a character-driven story, with the reactions and coping mechanisms of the characters a main strength of the novella. I recommend Waking in Winter to fans of creepy science fiction and (light) horror. It's not a book for readers who only enjoy hard SF since it leans a lot on the non-scientific mystery elements of the discovery on the ice planet.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, PS Publishing
Series: no
Format read: ebook
Source: review copy courtesy of author

Thursday, 1 March 2018

The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander is a novella released by and is the first longer thing of the author's that I've read. (She also wrote the Hugo shortlisted story "Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies", which I reviewed here.) Based on this excellent novella, I certainly intend to read more of the author's work in the future.

In the early years of the 20th century, a group of female factory workers in Newark, New Jersey slowly died of radiation poisoning. Around the same time, an Indian elephant was deliberately put to death by electricity in Coney Island.

These are the facts.

Now these two tragedies are intertwined in a dark alternate history of rage, radioactivity, and injustice crying out to be righted. Prepare yourself for a wrenching journey that crosses eras, chronicling histories of cruelty both grand and petty in search of meaning and justice.

From the cover and the kind of vague blurb, I didn't know what to expect from this book. What I got was an intricately woven set of stories about radium girls, radioactive elephants and elephant folk tales. This novella is set in an alternate timeline where, even a century ago, elephants have been found to be sentient and humans are able to communicate with them via sign language. But they are still exploited and oppressed — by circuses and by the radium watch factories.

The main story here is of the elephant Topsy and the dying radium girl Regan, who has stayed on at the factory to teach the elephants how to paint the dials. Both of them are already doomed. Their story is framed by elephant folk tales and informs a future (present) debate about using glow in the dark elephants as markers for nuclear waste sites. I admit it was that last element that first really grabbed me but in the end all the elements of the book came together nicely. If anything, the conclusion of the future storyline was the least satisfyingly conclusive, while the others had clearer endings.

Anyway, if you don't hate elephants or women, I highly recommend this book. You don't have to come into it knowing anything about the radium girls or the history of elephants in the US (I certainly knew nothing of the latter, and only learned that there was a real elephant named Topsy — who in real life never worked in a radium factory, shockingly — in a blog post by the author after I'd read the book). I will be recommending it to all and sundry at the slightest provocation.

5 / 5 stars

First published: January 2018,
Series: No
Format read: ePub eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

#ReadShortStories (41 to 45)

This batch looks like a Yoon Ha Lee binge, and it is a bit, but I also had a pretty long break between stories here. Life stuff and my escaping the aforementioned through Zelda: Breath of the Wild (a video game) has lead to reduced reading. Whoops.

Anyway, <3 Yoon Ha Lee and his stories. The three included here are all set in the Machineries of Empire series (see also my reviews of Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem), and I really love that world and the characters. I can't wait for book three to come out, and hopefully there are more stories set in that world that I haven't read left for me to get to.

I would also like to highlight the last story, "The House That Creaks" by Elaine Cuyegkeng as a pretty great horror story (and not overly gory, as far as I'm concerned). The author is a relatively new discovery for me (yay reading a bunch of short stories) and I've been enjoying her work. Go have a read if horror is your thing.

Extracurricular Activities by Yoon Ha Lee — Set in the same universe as Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, this story follows Jedao while he is still young. He goes on an undercover mission to extract a friend from academy. I really enjoyed this story. It was funny with serious moments. A good read for both readers of the novels and new comers to the world. Source:

The Battle of Candle Arc by Yoon Ha Lee — Shuos Jedao leads a Kel army to victory against heretics. I had some memory of this particular battle being mentioned in the novels (Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem), but misremembered the context. In any case, an interesting read, even more so since it was published years before the novels. Clearly the authors has been living in this world for a long time. Also, the explanations of the factions and calendar were done particularly well, especially given how complicated they can get. This story is a good introduction to the world. Source:

Yowie by Thoraiya Dyer — A story about being overwhelmed and lost. And yowies. A look at a dreary life amid a fantastical discovery. Not a bad story, but not exactly a pleasant read either. Source: Sprawl edited by Alisa Krasnostein

The Robot’s Math Lessons by Yoon Ha Lee — An adorable flash story about a robot making friends with a little girl (who I think is Cheris from Ninefox Gambit). Source:

The House That Creaks by Elaine Cuyegkeng — The story of a haunted house told fro the house’s point of view. A really interesting take, but also pretty creepy since we learn about the (supernatural) rituals that made the house haunted, as well as it’s pre-haunted past in the Philippines. Source: